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Printing Industry Exchange ( is pleased to have Steven Waxman writing and managing the Printing Industry Blog. As a printing consultant, Steven teaches corporations how to save money buying printing, brokers printing services, and teaches prepress techniques. Steven has been in the printing industry for thirty-three years working as a writer, editor, print buyer, photographer, graphic designer, art director, and production manager.

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Custom Binders: How to Specify 3-Ring Binder Jobs

Once in a while as a print buyer or graphic designer you may be asked to produce a 3-ring binder, perhaps for a convention or seminar. How do you communicate your needs to your commercial printing supplier? First, you break the job down into its component parts: the binder, the text pages, the tabs, and the assembly process. I’d suggest that you contact a vendor that focuses on 3-ring binder production since this is a specialty item, and not every printer produces binders.

The Binders Themselves (Materials and Ring Mechanisms)

As newer plastics have been developed, your options for binder materials have expanded. You can order high-end, turned-edge binders with leather, fabric, or paper glued over thick chipboard binder boards. The edges of the cover materials extend over the edges of the binder boards and are pasted onto the interior panels of the binders. Then a separate sheet of paper covers the front and back inner panels of the binder.

You can also choose binders with the cardboard binder boards sealed in vinyl and crimped along the edges. A variation on this is the view binder, which provides additional clear pockets on the covers and spine. You can insert offset or digitally printed graphic panels into these pockets and then seal (or not seal) them.

Turned edge and vinyl binders can also be manufactured with interior pockets for business cards or CDs. These can be positioned on the inside covers of the binder or even on the back cover. In addition, plastic inserts can be purchased with pockets of various sizes and shapes for hanging on the ring mechanisms within the binders.

You may also want to consider whether to buy sheet lifters (these lift the covers of the binders slightly above the printed text sheets to protect the ink or toner and keep it from offsetting onto the binder covers).

As an alternative, you may select polyvinyl binders. In this case, the binder material is thick enough to completely replace the cardboard binder boards, so the entire binder is plastic. However, depending on the thickness of the plastic, this binder material may be flexible (or somewhat floppy). If you want rigid panels, there are binders made with thick, rigid front and back plastic panels.

Things to Consider When Specifying Binders

  1. Consider how many binders you will need. This will help you decide whether to have the printer screen print the binders (for long press-runs printed directly onto the vinyl or poly binders), or laser print the binders (for short press-runs, with the graphic panels offset or digitally printed on paper inserts that are slipped into the clear plastic exterior pockets of the binders).
  2. Some of the higher-end turned edge binders (fabric or leather) can be further enhanced with foil stamping, embossing, or appliques.
  3. Consider what kinds of rings you will want. Depending on the binder manufacturer’s selection, you can choose between “D” rings and “O” rings (and even slanted “D” rings), which can be attached to the spine or the back panel of the binders. Rings can be made of steel or plastic, depending on the style of the binder and its manufacturer. For vinyl or turned-edge binders, the rivets used to attach the ring mechanism to the binder can be exposed or covered by the binder fabric (this affects the appearance only, not the strength).
  4. An interesting option for binders is the “easel binder.” In this product, the binder boards are split horizontally. In this case, the top (or bottom) half of the binder boards is not attached to the central ring mechanism. This allows either the top or bottom portion of the binder to fold away from the metal ring mechanism, forming a support for the binder rings, text pages, and divider tabs, and holding them at approximately a 45 degree angle, perfect for “hands-free” reading (and ideal for a cookbook). Other designs for easel binders may involve bending the front and back panels of the binder into a “tent” assembly, with the rings at the top and the text pages hanging forward and downward.
  5. Finally, consider how you will print on the binder and where (front, back, spine, or maybe the inside covers). All of this information will affect the final price.

Specifying the Divider Pages and Tabs

Consider how many divider pages and tabs you will need based on how you will want to break up the text pages inserted in the binder. For example, you might have a 200-page print book divided into five sections. Each one will have a flat divider page that is thicker than the text-weight paper of the book. You can print on the “body” of the divider page or leave it blank. Each divider will also have a short, die-cut “tab” that extends beyond the pages in the binder (this is usually printed). The tabs will probably be laminated with mylar to strengthen them. To be safe, you may want to also laminate the holes through which the ring mechanism will be attached to the divider pages.

When you specify the tabs, you will need to tell the printer how many ink colors to print: 1/0 or 1/1 (one color on one side or both sides of the dividers), 4/0 or 4/4 (four colors on one side or both sides of the dividers), etc. Also specify whether to print on the tabs only or both the tabs and the body of the divider pages. All of this information will affect the overall cost.

One good starting point for the divider page paper would be 110# Index stock. It’s thick enough, and it’s a relatively inexpensive paper stock. Your binder vendor can make other suggestions as appropriate.

When producing the InDesign art files for this bank of five tabs (or whatever other number of tabs you will need; “bank” is the printer’s term for a series of tabs in a binder), you will start by dividing the vertical dimension of the insert pages by the number of tabs. For example, if you have an 11” sheet to be inserted into the binder, each tab will be approximately 2.2” wide (unless they overlap each other). You will want to discuss the exact width and depth of the tabs with your commercial printing vendor before you prepare your final InDesign art files.

Pages of Text to Be Inserted into the Binder

We’ve almost forgotten the contents of the binder, the reason it exists in the first place.

Let’s say you are printing an 8.5” x 11” book that is 200 pages long. Your printer will translate this from pages into leaves (or sheets of paper: each sheet is two pages, front and back). The number of pages will determine the binder spine size. (For example, one local manufacturer specifies the capacity of a 2” binder as 200 sheets (i.e., 400 pages). Granted, the actual capacity will depend on the thickness of the paper. Therefore, decide whether you will want 50#, 60#, or 70# white offset (or any other paper) as the base stock from which to produce the 200-page text (or any other length) to be inserted into the 3-ring binder.

You will then want to have the printer drill holes (three holes for a 3-ring binder, or more or fewer as appropriate). This is done by the printer on a 3-hole punch.

Assembly of the Entire Package

Once the binders, divider tabs, and text have been produced, they need to be assembled into a usable product. This usually involves handwork, which gets expensive.

To minimize costs and maximize protection in transit, this is what I have always done for my own print brokering clients.

  1. I have the text for each binder shrink wrapped to chipboard after being three-hole drilled.
  2. Then I have the printer place the divider tabs in the back of each binder (in the proper order but not on the rings) so neither the tabs nor the ring mechanism will be damaged if the transport is rough.
  3. Then I have the printer place the shrink wrapped text within the binder but not on the rings.
  4. Then the printer packs up the binders.

An alternative would be to pack all the text blocks (i.e., the inserts), divider tabs, and binders in separate cartons; however, this would leave a lot more work for the client to do. Keep in mind that even this amount of assembly will cost extra. After all, it’s labor-intensive handwork.

I would strongly encourage you to not have the printer collate the tab dividers within the text blocks and then hang the dividers and text blocks onto the actual binder rings. Any rough handling in transit could severely damage the binders, inserts, and tab dividers.

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